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Irrational Games shutting down as Ken Levine starts anew at Take-Two
Irrational Games shutting down as Ken Levine starts anew at Take-Two
February 18, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

February 18, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
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More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



Irrational Games co-founder Ken Levine announced today that he is planning to shut down the studio and start a new venture under the aegis of parent company Take-Two Interactive.

According to Levine's post, he's closing Irrational -- the "defining project" of his career -- to work on games in a smaller studio with a flatter organizational hierarchy.

Levine plans to start this "smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor" with roughly fifteen Irrational expatriates within Take-Two Interactive, which owns 2K Games and, by extension, the soon-to-be defunct Irrational Games. The rest of the Irrational staff will have access to financial support and an unspecified period of time to organize their departure from the studio.

Levine claims that select Take-Two Interactive studios will be available to speak with departing Irrational employees about potential career opportunities, and Irrational will also host a career day to try and find good homes for former team members.

"Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one. And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had," wrote Levine. "While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. "

Levine wants to work on "narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable," and claims that he and his team will be working exclusively on producing digitally-distributed games at Take-Two Interactive. The Bioshock franchise will remain in the hands of publisher 2K Games.

While the closure of Irrational Games is surprising, Levine's interest in replayable story games is not -- he's expected to give a talk about his game design theory of 'Narrative Legos' -- replayable, non-linear sequences of gameplay that can be combined to create different experiences -- at GDC 2014 next month.

Gamasutra has reached out to Irrational and parent company 2K Games for comment on the impending closure.

This story will be updated as further developments warrant.


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Comments


Rob Wright
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My first thought was, "Wow, I didn't see this coming."

Then I recalled all of the big name game design stars downsized their studios or left the business altogether over the last few years. This trend is troubling.

Keith Burgun
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How is that troubling? It's high time people stopped spending hundreds of millions of dollars on games. Focus on good gameplay, good ideas. With a team of 15 - or even half that, for that matter, you can make the greatest games the world has ever seen, if you have a strong philosophy of design behind you.

Rob Wright
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@Keith

This is sort of what I posted earlier/below: It's troubling because Irrational Games released one of the most critically lauded games of the last decade last March and less than a year later the studio is essentially shut down. If this was just Levine saying "Hey, you know what? I wanna make different games with good gameplay and strong stories, and all I need is 15 guys!" that'd be one thing.

But it's not. He didn't leave Irrational to start some exciting new venture with 15 staff members. He KEPT 15 designers and let everyone else go. There's a huge difference. Sorry, but to me the story isn't about Ken Levine's creative itch and his desire to make a new kind of game. It's more about why Irrational Games, developer of the successful BioShock series, couldn't sustain itself. And yes, to me, that's speaks to serious trouble for the games industry.

David Paris
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The exact same thoughts ran through my head as well. Even with a large successful title, he can't keep his staff employed. Mind you, you don't lightly lay off a bunch of people. They've all got selves and families to sustain, so laying people off is never an easy choice. If he had a way to move forward and keep his crew, I assume he would have done so.

Chris Clogg
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@Keith

This has my vote haha. I miss a lot of those games from the 90's... heck remember the RTS genre?

Dean Boytor
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Much luck to Ken and his team in the next chapter of game dev. Thank you Irrational Games for the wonderful memories and timeless experiences.

Now, would ya kindly stand up and take a bow?

Heitor Paola
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I don't quite get why the studio couldn't go on without Levine, why he couldn't just start something new, be it inside or outside Take-Two, and leave Irrational as it was. Specially since it's said that the Bioshock brand will remain with 2K; won't they need a studio to work on that and wouldn't the studio that has made Infinite and the first Bioshock be the best choice?

Doesn't make that much sense to me, but maybe there are more reasons behind all this rationale that were either left unsaid or that were just lost to me.

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Eric Gilbert
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I totally agree. I think that's a selfish move...and one that shows weak leadership as well as weak management ability.

"...to work on games in a smaller studio with a flatter organizational hierarchy."

What a crock. He could have done that either way. If he had the power to shut down the studio, he surely had the power to reorganize it if he wanted.

"...his team will be working exclusively on producing digitally-distributed games at Take-Two Interactive."
"...Take-Two Interactive, which owns 2K Games and, by extension, the soon-to-be defunct Irrational Games."

And he is still going to be working for Take-Two?? Yep, weak sauce...weak sauce indeed.

Kyle Redd
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@Dave @Eric

I think you two are seriously jumping to conclusions here - The worst possible conclusion, incidentally.

I'm pretty sure if this move were really screwing over the majority of the Irrational team, we'd be hearing about it in a major way on Twitter by now. Most likely, Levine told Take Two he was ready to move on and form his own studio, at which point Take Two offered to let him build a new outfit within the company, plus funding for his next project, if he stuck around instead.

That would be a very appealing offer, and Levine would've been foolish not to take it. It's not selfish or weak, it's simply a smart decision.

Eric Gilbert
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@Kyle

I think your logic is flawed for two reasons:

1. No one from the studio is going to say anything bad during the transition...until they get new jobs. I'm sure we will hear from people soon enough.

2. It doesn't make sense for Take-Two to create a new outfit within the company, when he already had an outfit within the company. He could have simply reorganized his current outfit instead of dismantling it and creating a brand new one...which costs a TON more money. It's much more efficient to reorganize.

There's something else going on because if he simply wanted a team of 15 people, he had two options...he could have fired everyone except the 15 he picked, or (and this is where I think it shows weak management) he could have created that 15 person team within Irrational to do exactly what he wanted while keeping the rest to do the other projects.

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E McNeill
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Oddly enough, this makes me much more excited about his next project.

Rob Wright
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As a huge fan of story-driven games, I'm excited too. But that excitement is tempered by the news that the studio behind one of the most critically acclaimed titles in recent memory just shut down less than 12 months after the game was released. To me, this suggests that many things about the game development industry are unsustainable, at least when it comes to blockbuster triple A content.

Michael Moore
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I'm not sure this is such a bad thing though. Time will tell. Playing Infinite, the game really screams "I wanted to do things differently, but there are things you just have to do in a AAA game".

If Levine and his team get to do what they want, I predict it will be amazing. Reducing the scale is exactly what the industry needs in my opinion.

Luis Guimaraes
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Despite the sad side of the story, that was my first thought too. Maybe I'm wrong though, but it doesn't hurt to hope.

Now if the 15 developers left out of the new studio would magically team up with Warren Spector, that'd be awesome!

Bring Looking Glass back please! (one can only hope...). Maybe in another dimension...

John Hahn
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@Luis Guimaraes He didn't let go of 15 developers. He let go of all but 15 developers.

Luis Guimaraes
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Thanks @John,

I got the idea somehow that it said he kept half the in-house team and concluded there'd be 15 more on the other group.

Val Reznitskaya
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I'm really sorry for all the Irrational employees who are now out of a job.

Dean Boytor
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They did post this but it was kind of buried in a hyperlink.
http://www.irrationalgames.com/

He is taking 15 members with them and giving the rest of the team time in the studio to build their portfolios. They are also holding a Job Fair at the studio to help them find positions.

It sucks but that's a nice way to help them out then giving them the boot.

Val Reznitskaya
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It still sucks that he pulled the plug on the whole studio, which seems like an odd move. Of course I don't know enough about the situation to say he had no reason to.

Dean Boytor
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I agree

Rob Wright
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@Val

Ken Levine doesn't own Irrational Games. Take Two owns the studio. There is absolutely no way he made this decision alone, and we don't know right now how much input he even had in the decision -- if he had any. He might not have wanted to shut the studio down but was overruled by the brass at Take Two. That's probably why it seems like an odd move.

Val Reznitskaya
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I realize it probably wasn't his decision alone, but this article starts with this statement:

"Irrational Games co-founder Ken Levine announced today that he is planning to shut down the studio and start a new venture under the aegis of parent company Take-Two Interactive."

The wording here makes it sound like he at least had some input. Apologies if I misinterpreted.

Zach Grant
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"Irrational Games co-founder Ken Levine announced today that he is planning to shut down the studio and start a new venture under the aegis of parent company Take-Two Interactive."

Perfect move by Take Two. Make it very unclear who shut down the studio, so if by chance it is our demigod Ken who made the decision you can't be mad at him.

Odds are Take 2 made this decision and are hiding behind Ken to avoid negative press for layoffs. Genius if you ask me.

Rob Wright
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@Val
Not your fault you interpreted it that way because that's the statement that Levine and Irrational Games released. I'm guessing that Take Two wants this to look a creative restructuring instead of a corporate donwsizing move. But the fact remains that it doesn't add up .

D Chang
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Yep I think it's quite possible this started when Take-Two told Levine they were shuttering the entire studio, and Levine salvaged what he could.

Bioshock Infinite made quite a splash but if you look hard at the numbers it appears it didn't have the lasting power they were hoping for. #16 in the UK for 2013: http://gamewriter.videogamewriter.com/game-industry/bioshock-foun
der-quits/

Jesse Tucker
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I'm trying to tell what the difference is between this move and if Irrational simply did a massive round of layoffs. It seems like losing the Irrational brand would be a downside in this, which means that there must be some upside for Take-Two. Any speculation out there as to what that upside would be?

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Matt Cratty
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All I could think about when I saw this was "that's going to be awful for everyone but the 15 chosen ones".

David Paris
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Don't worry. When you are one of only a small group of people to survive layoffs, you feel huge pressure to perform or perish ALL the time. You've also probably just watched a ton of your friends get shafted and have a bunch of awkward interactions there. All their work interactions are underlined by a constant looming threat of "You can be next."

Fear not, they're not having a good time either.

Lincoln Thurber
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Seems like both Levine and Take 2 are writing off the studio as a loss for tax purposes. There could even be legal implication of how to best save money and cut losses quickly this way. Either way what a shitty thing to do to everyone else in the company.

Massachusetts is home to more than 75+ video game developers that employ about 1,300 workers, making it the fifth-biggest cluster of video game production in the country, after California, Texas, Washington, and New York. It is also an academic center for video games and tech, but when an 'anchor' developer leaves it hurts the region and other developers. Levine and Take 2 better be staying in Massachusetts; otherwise, such slash and burn tactics will hurt more than one company.

Soeren Andersen
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That is really upsetting news. Bioshock Infinite was a big surprise for me personally as a standout triple A title that really worked exceptional on a narrative level. This team deserved a better fate for sure.

I think this comes down to the gameplay component being a liability when you operate in the tripple A space. The exceptional narrative of Infinite seemed to struggle a lot between the endless shooting galleries.

Smaller and less expensive titles can hopefully make his games more focused.

However, I am really unclear on how Levine is going to deliver on the promise of "replayable + story driven", but in his case I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Dean Boytor
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in one of his more recent interviews, he spoke about "Narrative Legos" and that they can be pieced together to be played over and over again to tell a different story. I'm sure these are one of the things he wants to explore in the new studio.

Amanda Hernandez
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I was very taken aback by this move. However, there are obviously some things that "the public" may be unaware of as was mentioned before. At the very least I take solace in the fact that 2K will maintain the Bioshock series, which means that there is still the possibility of the series continuing. I was sad to see though that his lecture for GDC was not allotted under my pass type. :( I would very much like to be able to learn from him. I am a new graduate and my heart lies with writing/story and design.

Karl E
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Totally get it. A lot of players grew really sick of all the shooting in Infinite. Presumably Ken Levine as well. But the big guys decided that if Ken wanted to create a big budget game, there needed to be LOTS of shooting so that people would buy it.

Ken's solution: fire people until the team is small enough to be given any kind of creative freedom.

It's totally logical but still... there has to be a smarter way for this industry to work.

Sam Stephens
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We can only speculate as to why these decisions were made, but many (like yourself) have made some strange assumptions. Although I dislike Infinite's gameplay, I do not doubt that the people at Irrational thought of it as a valuable part of the experience and in no way saw it as obligatory.

Karl E
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Yeah, the assumption that this creative ambition is the actual cause of the layoffs might be totally wrong. He just makes it sound that way in his letter, where he connects the two in a kind of unfortunate way.

Bob Johnson
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Bioshock seemed like that AAA fence sitter. IT sold well but maybe not well enough to justify the many years and resources spent in its development

Tuomas Pirinen
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I find it hugely unlikely that Ken is behind this: the Irrational Studio is wholly owned by Take Two, so Ken making this decision over the heads of Take Two senior management sounds utterly unbelievable. I would be willing to bet fair bit of cash that this is part of corporate strategy of Take Two to close unprofitable studios. Take Two share price has jumped 6.75% on the news, which gives us a clue on what is happening -investors are happy.

Terrible news for the very, very talented people who lost their jobs. I hope they land on their feet quickly.

First Criterion, now this. Not the best of starts to the new year.

Ahmad Daniels
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I wonder if we should change the perspective on how permanent we view game jobs. maybe it would be better to compare it more to a lot the the Television/Film jobs where you jump from job to job than stick at one spot for a long time.

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Jonathan Murphy
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1997-2014 it appears the studio went through massive problems after System Shock 2. They have several cancelled games, and poor sales until Bioshock. I wish a former employee would come forth and say what went wrong after Bioshock 3? It looks like they finally found their footing, then closure.

Jay N
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Wow, what a selfish move. Shutting down the entire studio because you want to "do other things" is completely morally bankrupting in an industry where so many studios struggle even to stay afloat, let alone for one which doesn't seem to have been in any particular financial difficulties.

Informal "talks" with other Take Two studios? A career day? That the best you could do for the people who spent the last decade building your "vision", Levine? Really? Depressing to say the least.

Ben Larkin
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As others have iterated, it may appear to be selfish, but whether or not he was influenced by Take-Two isn't all that relevant. The fact is that the majority of the studio will be out of a job. I know that he's offering help to those out of work, but I definitely sympathise with the soon to be unemployed.

Rob B
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Yes, I agree many of the comments here, I also find it despicable that studios dont pay for workers they dont need indefinitely. How dare they operate like every other business on the entire planet and fire staff they no longer require.

If I set up a studio, employed staff, and made a smash hit game I would of course enslave myself to the requirements of those I employed for the rest of my days, its the only moral thing to do.

For shame Levine, your attempts to set up and publicize the talents of those you are firing is really just a slap in the face, and not at all far more than youd expect, and indeed get, when fired from nearly anywhere else... FOR SHAME!

Michael Thornberg
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Well, this certainly is interesting. Highly successful studio shuts down...
I certainly hope this didn't happen because stockholders require their yearly percentage (all too common these days)

Regardless, I hope he does well with his new venture, and I look forward to see what he comes up with :)

Tim Eager
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I don't understand the ire or the conspiracy theories. Here's a perfectly plausible scenario:

Ken Levine: I'm going to leave so I can work on new gaming concepts.

Take Two: Why not do that where you are?

KL: Irrational is structured for AAA games, with the overhead to match. It's too unwieldy for what I want to do and requires me to spend too much of my energy managing the business. These concepts won't be ready for AAA games any time soon, if ever, and I want to work on smaller projects that I can release digitally. I want to be free from the logistical hassles of retail releases.

TT: OK, so downsize Irrational until it fits your new model.

KL: There would be too much emotional baggage. Coming to a downsized version of Irrational, even in a new office, would feel too depressing. I'm looking to build something new, not work at a studio that's a shell of its former self, even if it is by design.

TT: Is anyone going with you?

KL: [Gives 15 names].

TT: We're going to have to close Irrational, but you probably knew that. Why not set up your new studio under our umbrella?

KL: That's not really what I had in mind....

TT: Here's a bunch of money to start your new studio and fund your next project(s).

KL: If I accept, you have to make the landing as soft as possible for all of the laid-off employees.

TT: Done.


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